To read and write creatively is to live in a dreamstate, or so many would
Escape the Bear and Fall to the Lion
 *actively resists the urge to crest said ad on photoshop*
 One reason why I love poetry so much is that the subconscious is permitted to reveal itself in a less convoluted way in fragments and images without any need for context.
 FYI, your Moon sign is the second most important influence in your chart after the Sun and represents your emotions and inner mood.
I remember how much my heart ached in the snowy mountains of Colorado that first year. I had never seen snow in person before, let alone touched it.
That morning after the MFA Halloween party felt fuzzy, almost like buzzing static or the high-pitched ringing after a bomb goes off.
I woke from a restless night of sleep next to my boyfriend, still dressed in a half-assed mermaid costume. One feathery eyelash had fallen off, but my scales, which had been sculpted from eyeshadow and fishnets, remained somewhat intact against my forehead. My hands roamed over my body and face, until reaching the top of my head. I was surprised to find the pink hairpiece faithfully secured there, albeit tangled beyond help.
A faint pink light matching the color of the newly formed nest on my head cast itself over every inch of the room. Sunrise.
There comes a point in the many stages after a party when one wakes much too early and is in too much physical pain to go back to sleep, and I had hit that point. I tried waking my boyfriend without luck, then decided to move around.
The first thing I noticed, after walking to the bedroom window, was a small streak of red-orange peeking over the mountains, fighting its way to me despite my desperate need for continued sleep and aspirin. The second thing I noticed was the endless, snow-covered landscape. Every ordinary object I had come to know was now unrecognizable, and I could not tell where the parking lot ended and the street began.
The night before had been chilly, sure, but no one, especially a southern girl like me, had expected to wake up to this. I’d waited almost three months to see my first snow, and it was otherworldly.
Starkwhite quiet blanketed the cars in the parking lot below. My Black SUV could’ve been mistaken for a white dune. The light seemed brighter than usual, as if amplified, reflecting off of the shimmering earth and into the air, causing me to squint, the way I did when looking at a pool of water. It was beautiful and completely foreign.
I practically squealed as I threw on a men’s jacket, running out of the door, down the stairs, and into pearly dawn.
Snow wasn’t something I minded in the beginning. Perhaps because it was new and exciting to me then. I hadn’t yet driven in it with my pathetic 2-wheel drive nor had a group of strangers pushed me out of a drift on campus, and I certainly hadn’t skidded to a jarring halt just barely avoiding a violent smack into the back of a stopped Subaru. Like everything else in this new world, snow was alluring until it wasn’t.
I must have looked downright insane twirling around the parking lot in my fish scale leggings and irretrievable pink hairpiece with one giant, vibrant eyelash flapping in the mountain wind, but I didn’t care. And I didn’t know the turbulence that would follow in coming months.
Not long after that morning, my then-boyfriend gifted me a copy of Mary Ruefle’s poetry collection, “The Most of It”. When I opened the book, I noticed an earmarked page; on it, was a poem entitled, “Snow” – a poem that now serves as a time capsule of that day.
There is something about this poem now that makes me feel completely enveloped by a time when everything felt damn near perfect, if only for one day. It reminds me of a world where I could be anyone or anything. A world where I was 24, in love, and finding joy in the ethereal unknown landscapes around me.
I am no longer the woman who once felt astonished in the presence of snow, but the beauty of poetry is that it can take you right back to a place you thought you’d left behind.
Something I’m asked fairly often is: “Why don’t you self-publish?”
In the moments following this question, I usually mumble some quick excuse and shrug the idea off because the truth is that my aversion to self-publishing is complicated. It’s not like I haven’t thought about uploading an e-Collection of work onto Amazon.com before.
I mean, why not, right? It’s modern, convenient, affordable, and you don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to do it. Nor do you have to fight through a massive slush pile to be noticed by publishers. Heck, you can bypass the publisher altogether, avoid book contest fees and months of waiting to hear back, and maintain creative control over your work.
As someone who has built a career in publishing as both an editor and as a writer, I believe my perspective diverges wildly from the majority of my peers, at least when it comes to legitimizing yourself as an author and legitimizing the work itself (both of which important are incredibly important to me).
So what exactly makes an author or a book “legitimate”?
If you’ve never sat down and thought about your own definition to this question, you should do so asap, and try not to overthink it either. Like snowflakes, no two responses are the same, and there is no right or wrong answer. Your beliefs and the standards you impose on yourself are completely subjective.
My personal journey through publishing and my lifelong academic pursuit in the field of creative writing have both come to define my somewhat high standards.
The truth is that anyone can publish an eBook, and I mean anyone. In fact, the first thing that comes to mind when I think about self-publishing is the endless wave of YA paranormal romance novels and sci-fi books with mediocre, redundant vocabulary as well as completely predictable story arcs, characters, and narratives, which began popping up after “50 Shades of Grey”. For writers in these genres, self-publishing makes absolute sense, and might even be the most optimal method of publication. What better way to get your work directly into the hands of readers in this incredibly competitive market?
Also, I don’t mean to knock these genres as a whole. I’m just not a paranormal romance novelist or much for sci-fi in my day-to-day writing. More importantly, for me to be taken seriously in the writing community I’ve built my life in, self-publishing just isn’t an option. Other people have to recognize your skill before you earn your place in the sun.
Industry & Incest
The circles I am referring to here are chiefly comprised of two main groups:
1) Higher Education
This includes a) insular MFA communities which are somehow still connected on a national level that often feels downright incestuous and cult-like; b) overall holier-than-thou ivory tower poets, fiction writers, essayists, professors and intellectuals; and c) university presses.
2) Small Press
Anything other than the five or so major publishing houses like Penguin, Random House, and HarperCollins is considered “small“ press. Even if the press makes millions of dollars a year, it’s not considered a major publisher. This leaves a pretty wide range of presses. Many though, don’t make much in the way of profit and are run by professors and/or well-to-do writers that supplement the press with their income.
The kind of publications that come out of these circles are the kind of publications that have limited prints, big community and award prestige, as well as zero financial return. This is this type of work that is created out of love and is often the most rewarding to read.
Only a douchebag would self-publish in such circles. However, it’s perfectly acceptable to start your own press to publish work from other writers you enjoy but never for the purposes of packaging and distributing your own work.
One benefit of small press is creative freedom. Editors rarely try to push the work in any way. Manuscripts are, for the most part, published as-is. This is also a space where you can push the boundaries of genre hybridity, which is awesome. However, you pay between $15-30 in reading fees every time you enter a book contest. While 99% of these fees go directly toward producing the winning book(s), most can’t help but feel like they just bought into a pyramid scheme, one which they have no hope of reaching upper echelons of.
Given the unspoken rule about self-publishing, insular community, and competitiveness of it all, an insidious type of nepotism results, despite the best efforts of the community to prevent such conflicts of interest. You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours (i.e., you publish my book; I’ll publish yours). This is something I quickly grew tired of in graduate school. When you begin to notice how those who are published are connected to one another and who the heads of these presses are, it’s a little disheartening. But, in a way, it’s not much different from the highest form of publishing.
“No one said life would be fair.”
In grad school, it was insulting if you were dubbed a “career poet”, which implied that you were a brown noser intent on schmoozing your way to the top because your writing couldn’t stand on its own.
The serious academics in my program didn’t really care about this insult though because, unlike the rest of us, they knew that anyone who wanted to get ahead in this industry, like it or not, had to network; also, that this practice was critical to becoming a successfully published author. And yes, of course, there are exceptions to this statement, but not many.
This is a fact I never much cared for. I grew up with this grand fantasy of some freckle-faced editor at a major publishing house randomly picking up my manuscript from the slush pile and, within a few lines of reading, them exclaiming to everyone within earshot that they’d just struck 14ct gold, thus propelling me into my new life as the next J.K. Rowling.
Unfortunately, publishing is neither fantasy or based on merit. It’s based on sales. If you’re an optimist, maybe it’s a little of both.
You and I may look at a book like “50 Shades of Grey” and balk or wonder how the hell so many people enjoyed a book that was intentionally written as “Twilight” fanfiction. But here we are in 2018 the year of our lord still talking about it. After growing in popularity, it was picked up by a subdivision of Random House, not because it’s a good book but because it’s popular. 50 Shades was a smart business decision that drove sales through the roof and led to a three-part movie deal.
And I’m reminded of this shit-eating lesson every time I open up my HBO GO app and see the image of Christian Grey teasing a blind-folded and tethered Anastasia Steele.
What can we learn about publishing from pop fiction?
Over the years, I have done my research on some of my favorite and relatively popular authors and discovered that most of them were not classically trained in writing. Many of these writers didn’t bother with the slush pile, not in small press and not in any of the major publishing houses. Instead, most of these people grew an internet following, publishing their work online for free initially, then releasing eBooks that actually made money, which is damn hard when your book costs $0.99.
The first real-life example I saw of this was both unforgettable and way too close to home.
As part of earning our master’s degrees, we had to teach at least one ‘Intro to Creative Writing’ course per semester, and we often discussed our trials and tribulations in the MFA lounge. One day, a classmate, who was already well-established in the small press fiction community, told me she had a young student in her class who’d electronically published one of those YA paranormal romance novels on Amazon.com.
I rolled my eyes at this. But when we went to look at the book profile, we were both shocked to see that the student’s book had been purchased and downloaded thousands upon thousands of times. There’s a metaphor buried somewhere in this anecdote that I don’t care to parcel out. Just know that it stung.
While part of me feels against self-publishing and also that it is the downfall of literary quality and integrity, as it allows the market to be shaped by popularity, I can also see the appeal of it. Moreover, the act of self-publishing feels like a reflection of my generation, a generation characterized by instant gratification and ADHD (which I have btw). However, if you take a closer look at us millennials, we aren’t just a bunch of tech-hungry, selfish, pick-me jerks. We are brilliant entrepreneurs who constantly find new ways around a system that benefits from our mindless complicity and financial participation, like weeds refusing to be left under concrete to wither and die, always finding a way to the light. Perhaps, self-publishing is merely an extension of this resilience as well as a refusal to be buried.
a heart is not a
way to tame something fierce
when I was young
a pack of wild dogs ate
the livestock at my school
even taking with them
the llama that spat in my eye
one cold morning
your mother is back in town
leaving notes in paint chips
about love and other demons
I have been waiting
for the right moment to collapse
in a room without men
something other than self-importance
became big enough to swallow
you never asked to whom or what I belong
which is for the best because the answer
is nowhere near the surface
my heart is an animal
bolting at the slightest disturbance
when it is dark
I send prayers to the forest
and yearn for a being
I do not know
Artemis, cast into shadows,
had a twin brother
who became the sun
became a reminder
of how to hide
love from a man
Today’s prompt is to write something using this photo as inspiration. I don’t know the original image source unfortunately, but I saw it on Facebook earlier today with the caption: “Farm workers in California continue working while the fires blaze.” It reminds me of one of the YA novels I started last year in which a human-caused ecodisaster blocks the sun, causing an unstoppable super winter set to wipe out all human life on earth.
There are a lot of things I see when I look at this photo beyond fantasy though. It’s pretty terrifying to witness something so post-apocalyptic happening right now. It also snowed in the northern part of my home state of Louisiana, today. Currently, I’m huddled next to a space heater in snow boots and a down parka typing with numb fingers somewhere in the middle of New Orleans. Yesterday, my phone wouldn’t quit buzzing at work from a tornado warning. And last week it flooded within a matter of minutes at the beginning of a thunderstorm. None of this is normal.
For these reasons, I feel torn between a political essay about migrant workers in CA and a short story in the same vein as the YA mentioned earlier.
Either way, this prompt doesn’t have many restrictions, aside from using the photo as inspiration for your opening scene. Any genre is fine. Try to write at least 500 words.Use at least one color. Mention the word “burning” somewhere, whether in or out of context of the CA wildfires.
Feel free to post what you come up with in the comments section. I’d love to read it!
Thinking of You at 2 AM
The stove clock is still off by an hour
despite the fact that it’s been a whole week
since daylight savings time.
A baby water moccasin darts
across the foot of God without much thought.
This is still a city. Where your arms meet my waist.
Where the river bend meets a bus station.
In my dreams, you are pressed against my back. Loving me fiercely.
The past is a shroud I carry through wet southern streets.
It’s not you that needs letting go.
When you speak the world is still.
When you speak the restless brambles bend back.
I am the god of war. Even if that war is me.
You have to keep me at the right distance.
Which is unfair. A bit like heaven if you ask me.
Is this a test? Sometimes I wonder
what’s between the teeth of knowing.
It’s that time of year again, folks — National Novel Writing Month! Of course, I didn’t remember this fact until today with a third of November already underway. Pretty standard for me though if I’m being honest.
For those who are unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, more commonly referred to as NaNoWriMo, this is an annual event held during the month of November that encourages creative writers to complete a 50,000-word manuscript in exactly 30 days, the equivalent of 1,667 words per day.
Now is when I confess to you that I have never participated in NaNoWriMo in any official capacity. The organization website has determined rules, deadlines, achievement badges, and so on. I merely adopted the concept some years ago and have since adapted it for my own creative purposes. However, if you struggle to write everyday and need that extra level of accountability, it may be useful to register with the site.
I tend to personalize my restrictions for the month of November around my desired goals with realistic expectations. As a full-time editor and part-time poet, it is not always feasible for me to write an extra 1,667 words per day. Sometimes I come home late too mentally exhausted to do anything other than stare into the abyss that is Netflix. Sometimes my partner wants to spend quality time with me and talk about the day. Sometimes I have to make dinner or go to roller derby practice or run out to the store or walk my dogs, etc. I think most of us lead incredibly busy lives, which is why many of us don’t write regularly or as often as we would like to in the first place.
To make matters worse, I am the type of person who will stop trying altogether if my goals are ridiculously unobtainable. It’s just who I am as a woman living with diagnosed ADHD and almost no free time. Sometimes I expect too much of myself. I am also in the habit of pushing the limits of my physical and mental capabilities. At my core though, I am my writing therefore this is one area of my life I refuse to ruin through exhaustion.
Being a poet is a factor in my self-imposed month of writing as well. For instance, 1,667 words per day is doable for most fiction writers, novelists, essayists, and those who write long-form pieces, but for poets — who tend to focus almost exclusively on the quality of words versus quantity and who spend hours agonizing over every single word choice/pairing — this can be excruciatingly difficult or even impossible to achieve.
Still, cultivating the impetus to write every day for an entire month, come hell or high water, is useful in creating new habits and making the follow through on deadlines less intimidating. “One day, I’ll finish that novel,” transforms into, “Today, I will finish that novel,” and this monumental shift in thinking is crucial to manifesting your dreams no matter who you are or what you write.
For poets, this may become an exercise in letting go. It is easier to edit/whittle down pages and pages of lines than it is to pull the perfect sequential line out of thin air while writing a poem.
A few years ago, after a particularly bad case of writer’s block, I decided to try writing from stream of consciousness during the month of November. The goal was to write as quickly as possible without pausing — the opposite of my writing practice at the time. The biggest problem I had then was my inability to forget the reader/audience while writing, which led to the belief that everything I put down on paper was garbage; if it wasn’t ready to be published the moment I wrote it down, I tossed it. This is why I decided to try something new, something that would help me bypass the part of my brain intent on shouting, “This sucks!”
I got the idea from Gertrude Stein who, early in her career, performed experiments on “normal motor automatism” — the practice of simultaneously dividing one’s attention between two intelligent activities, such as writing and speaking — which was theorized to reveal one’s subconscious in a literal “stream of consciousness.”
In the end, Stein didn’t believe “automatic writing” was possible, but her work often reflects a sort of primitivism in the repetition of phrases, unique linguistic patterns and experimental forms she chose that feels reminiscent of a stream of consciousness.
I thought about how Stein might have come up with “Tender Buttons” (one of my favorite works) and concluded that I couldn’t allow myself to stop and analyze what I wrote down under any circumstances. The result was a 70-page collection of poems that became key to my final thesis. In this way, NaNoWriMo can be utilized as more than just a way to create consistent writing habits or to finish that long-put-off novel; it can also be used as a period of exploration and evolution. I encourage anyone who missed the beginning of November to participate anyway. It’s never too late to begin a new writing practice.
Did I ever tell you about the time I did a writing workshop in Oaxaca? It was the week of Halloween, roughly two weeks after the students missing and the atmosphere was wild.
Oaxaca is a big destination for Dia de los Muertos to begin with. On top of that, the political unrest grew each day I was there. Near the end of the trip, I received an email from the US embassy saying Americans were being evacuated 7-8 hours away in Acapulco. When I woke up the next day, the building across the street was covered ingraffiti about the students. As the Day of the Dead drew closer, there seemed to be more and more police presence, and, consequently, more and more human-sized guns.
But before that, Oaxaca took my breath away. There were old churches, colorful buildings, and mountains everywhere. The food tasted like nothing I’ve ever had. Not once did I come across anything with preservatives. Juice was nourishing and fresh squeezed. Raw tomato was practically orgasmic. Yes, I did get a touch of Montezuma’s revenge, but it wasn’t anything a few shots of Mezcal couldn’t fix. Best of all, it wasn’t overpopulated with Westerners, and I ended up gaining some Spanish by the end of it.
The workshop (U.S. Poets in Mexico) itself was extremely valuable. I enjoyed working with Anselm Berrigan and Catherine Wagner the most. Wagner, in particular, had completely unconventional writing practices that shook the foundation of how I conceptualized craft at the time. This experience begged many questions I still ask myself today.
1) How many of us actually use our environment to write?
I’d say that most people write inside with their heads down. We cram our bodies into uncomfortable positions and rigidly pull on the depths of our imagination. Even if you sit outside to write or go to a different location, this stiffness is often still with us.
2) Now out of those of us that deviate from standard writing practices, how many of us use, really use, our bodies or movement to write?
It might sound counterintuitive, but that was the entire focus of Wagner’s workshop. Although it made me uncomfortable initially, this redirection opened up something in my writing I had never experienced before.
This came at a point in grad school when I felt myself repeating the same things over and over again in my work. I was at a standstill, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to write for another year.
A lot of grad-level worshiping involves crafting in private until you’re ready to show it to your peers who then evicerate it, which is valuable in many ways. But after a while, can make it impossible to forget about the audience during the writing process and make you lose touch with your love for it altogether. That changed for me after the workshop.
The first thing we did was engage each other by siting in a circle and playing word games. Someone would say a word and the next person would have to pick out the middle sound to begin anew. This is where I got my thesis title, “Louisiana Alchemy.” Later, we walked around the courtyard describing what we saw in our perspective notebooks.
My favorite exercise though went a little further when Wagner asked each of us to write a sonnet (14 lines). However, we had to incorporate a number, a color, a piece of architecture, and we could only write one line for every block we walked, and we were all sent in different directions.
Something about the timing of the block and being in this foreign landscape brought forth a well of inspiration. I stopped caring about the reader and felt that spark I used to get when I first started writing poetry in college. Some of my favorite poems (see 2 at the end of this post) came out of this experience.
Being a big fan of Wagner, it was also interesting to glean up-close insight into her writing practices. I had always wondered how she came up with such unique, phonetic verse. Everything for her was about movement.
This is also why I recommend finding a workshop where one of your favorite writers will be teaching or one that is put on by a press you love. Not only is it a great way to network, but it’s also a great way to learn exactly what you want to learn from the people you admire most.
Make it a goal to go somewhere you’ve never been before for this as well. As a writer, life experience is necessary for you to do what you do.
Although I went on this trip with a classmate and met up with an old friend who lived nearby, plenty of people go it alone and are ready to meet new writers. A friend may not have the same interests and may want to go to different workshops during this as well. You will also have the advantage of dedicating your time to the writers you came to see.
Where are your favorite writing workshops and what techniques do you still practice from them?
2 poems from the workshop:
The Big Bad Block
Writer’s block, listless lingua, poetic impotence—whatever you want to call it—I’ve been forcing myself to write through it for years now. After all, one of Hemingway’s most famous works, The Old Man and the Sea, came directly out of writer’s block.
But after years of writing through it, the results—a ton of first chapters, hundreds of unfinished poems, and a slew of half-hearted essays—are less than desirable.
Never in my life have I experienced writer’s block. I was always that ambitious student in the front row who could spin a tale from any assigned prompt, always volunteering to read it out loud at the end of class. So how did I get to this place?
- Exhaustion from professional reading, editing, and writing
- Writing endlessly through past trauma for creative purposes
- Pushing emotions down instead of using them as creative fuel
- Only looking at work through the lens of the reader
- Writing extensively sans passion/inspiration to beat the block
Hemingway may have been able to write through his soul-numbing creative drought, but I simply couldn’t do it anymore. Somewhere in the middle of grad school, the blank page became my enemy, reading felt like a burden, and I hated everything I managed to put into words.
What I’m talking about here is not your run-of-the-mill writer’s block. If it were, writing prompts, coffee shops, family squabbles, people watching, and a number of other random things would pull you out of it quickly.
I’m talking about something much more sinister. It is recurring exhaustion, disillusionment, existing in a mechanical or automatic state. It is going full-speed into Self-Deprecationlandia without any hope of resurfacing. It is the inability to find inspiration over prolonged periods of time, despite your dedication to “write through it.” It is losing touch with why you became a writer in the first place. No, what I’m talking about is longer and darker than standard writer’s block.
So how do you write through numb periods like this when the act feels on par with vacuuming a staircase or cleaning the toilet?
The simple answer is—you don’t!
When one of my undergraduate professors gave me this advice seven years ago, she changed my whole perception of writing and how it should be done. She said she went through periods of consumption and regurgitation. In other words, she took time to ingest lots and lots of media and mull over her thoughts before entering a long writing phase or working on a book project. This method is both obvious and sacrilegious at the same time.
So often as writers we are told to carve out a practice and stick to that schedule every single day, to write through writer’s block, and to, above all, never stop. In reality, I think this can be damaging to some of us.
At the upper echelons of academia, passion is inadvertently stamped out, while the pressure to publish, contextualize, and evolve reign. Production is never-ending. Some find this challenging and fun; others feel drained. Either way, you keep moving.
This professor’s advice permitted me to take a break from writing. And this professor is the only person ever to do so.
Rethinking Writing Practices
After so many years in this discipline, I no longer see the practice of writing in terms of black and white. Instead, I see it as a natural cycle or fluctuation. There are times when forcing yourself to write is helpful, even healing, and should be done. But that force can also reach a point of killing your passion for the craft altogether.
There is a timing and balance to writing that cannot be forced, which is why we find ourselves writing about childhood trauma decades later. You need enough emotion to power you through the act itself and enough distance to craft that feeling into something worth sharing with the world. You need time to analyze your emotions and the events in your life to fashion art from that.
Some write solely from raw emotion and experience, which many describe as reopening an old wound and letting it bleed. This type of writer also needs time to heal or practice self-care from time to time.
Even creative writing/lit professors take sabbaticals every few years to nourish their minds and spirits. While this suggestion goes against everything we’re taught as writers, I think it is necessary to say aloud. It’s okay if you have nothing to say right now. It will come to you later, and when it does, it will flow out in bursts. It will feel natural. It will not feel like a chore.
Most creatives have multiple interests, skills, and hobbies. Every time I put a pin in writing, I find it helpful to play piano, paint, crochet, draw, record songs using old poems as song lyrics, make gifts for upcoming holidays, take my pooches to the dog park, go hiking or to somewhere I’ve never been, research something I’ve always wanted to know more about, or take up a new hobby altogether. This provides a respite from the blank page while channelling other parts of your creativity, building your confidence back up, and giving you ample inspiration for your current or future projects.
It took three weeks of vacation for me to finally shake the last three years of writer’s block.
Spending time with my family, sleeping in my teenage bedroom, not pounding out copy/edits eight plus hours a day, watching my favorite sci-fi/fantasy films, and reading captivating books for the first time in ages all reminded me of why I do what I do and inspired a novel I truly care about finishing.
Forcing myself to write isn’t so bad—when I have something to say. Ultimately, inspiration and restfulness are paramount to my creativity and maybe to other’s creativity as well. Like medical treatments, writing practices aren’t one-size-fits-all. The most important thing is to listen to yourself and protect that well of creativity with everything you have. Don’t be afraid to experiment and find what’s best for you.